Adoption Assistance – Empowering Foster Parents
When you adopt a special needs child, you are eligible for adoption assistance, also known as adoption subsidy, benefits which often include health insurance and cash payments that are to be negotiated between you and the Department of Children’s Services. The subsidy negotiations should be completed and an agreement should be signed prior to the finalization of your adoption.
Tennessee Adoption Subsidy Details
Subsidies are available to cover continued treatment of any medical, psychological or dental problem that the child had at the time the child was placed for adoption. Continued TennCare coverage can be provided and sometimes the State can cover needs not covered by TennCare. It is important that your subsidy agreement carefully lists each problem your child has, any history that places your child at risk like, abuse or neglect, genetic risks, prenatal drug exposure and the future needs that might reasonably be expected.
Coverage for some of your child’s treatment may also be available from private insurance or from public school special education. However, it is best to be as inclusive as possible in the list of special needs and conditions at the time the subsidy agreement is originally drafted because private insurance and special education services may change prior to your child becoming an adult.
Finally, the Department can agree to provide a monthly stipend to you to decrease the financial impact of the adoption on your family. The maximum amount of the stipend is usually just under the state foster care board payment. Your attorney’s fees and court costs are routinely included in subsidy agreements as well.
Most families negotiate their adoption assistance without assistance of counsel. However, if you would like me to review your adoption assistance agreement before you sign it, or advise you regarding negotiations, I would be happy to be of assistance. In any event, I’d like to have a copy of the signed adoption assistance agreement for my file. Your contracts with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services renews annually, so you should expect periodic reviews.
It is sometimes rumored that Tennessee will cut their adoption subsidy program and that people who have already adopted could have the benefits originally promised reduced or cut off. Over time, Tennessee has imposed restrictions and the program could end if the federal funding for the program is terminated. Likewise, TennCare, an important part of the adoption assistance plan, is constantly changing. While it is likely that you will have the benefits in your adoption assistance contract throughout your child’s minority, understand that no set amount is guaranteed.
What is the purpose of adoption assistance?
Adoption assistance is primarily a federal program designed to reduce or eliminate the financial disincentive of foster parents to adopt foster children, to expand the pool of available adoptive families, and to decrease disruptions caused by the financial stress of caring for children with special needs.
Why is adoption assistance important?
Adoption disruption is the name for a child being adopted but then not staying in the adoptive family. While adoption disruptions are fairly rare in Tennessee, it does happen, and it is extremely emotionally damaging to the child and to the rest of the adoptive family. Preventing adoption disruption is a goal of all responsible adoption professionals and it should be a consideration of all prospective adoptive parents.
Two predictors of adoption disruption are:
- Prospective adoptive parents are not aware of all the child’s special needs and prognosis before they adopt. Parents can manage even the most difficult needs when they are prepared and agree to the challenges in advance. Parents who feel abused are at high risk of disruption. Tennessee law requires that fairly extensive information be provided to people who adopt children out of their guardianship. To cross check what you received against what you are to receive see T.C.A. 36-1-144.
Sometimes, judgmental people will make you feel bad about asking difficult health questions about a child you may adopt. For the child’s sake and your own, ask and keep asking until you understand.
- Prospective adoptive parents do not have adequate financial resources to meet the child’s special needs. If the child’s behavioral health treatment exhausts your private insurance and back up TennCare is not available, if one parent needs to work part-time or not at all to attend to all the child’s therapies and the family can’t afford the income loss, the adoption is at a higher risk of disruption. Even if the adoptive family does not disrupt, the financial stress decreases the emotional reserves the parents have to offer to support the child and the family.
The process of negotiating adoption assistance should include a frank discussion of the child’s special needs and prognosis, and a plan to cover the expected costs. Both of those elements increase the chance of a successful and happy adoption experience for the parents and the child.
Should you negotiate your own adoption assistance contract?
If you are happy with the initial rate offered and many foster parents are, you don’t need to have an attorney involved in the process. You can still use some legal oversight if you want, but going it alone if you are content, is fine.
If you are not content with what is offered, or if you want to better understand what the fair rate is so you don’t leave any of your child’s resources on the table, you may need an attorney.
- Are you comfortable evaluating adoption assistance entitlement yourself?Understanding what qualifies a child as special needs, what the base rates are, and what additional factors qualify a child for extraordinary and special circumstance rates is the standard applied to your child’s circumstances to determine a fair rate for your child. The links offered here have those standards, but many lay people are not comfortable reading and applying regulations and policies. If you can’t or don’t want to dig into those policies, and you want the rate offered assessed, you should consult an attorney.
- If you have figured out what you think the correct rate is for your foster child, and DCS is offering that rate or better, you should probably accept the rate offered. In this case, you would only need an attorney if you want someone to check your analysis.
- However, if you can work with the policies and are comfortable advocating for yourself and believe that your child qualifies for a higher rate than has been offered, here are some tips to help you help DCS to see things your way.
Tips for foster parents negotiating adoption assistance on their own.
Expect a slow down in your adoption finalization.
Often, the local DCS office offers foster parents the maximum they have authority to offer without more documentation of needs or approval “from Nashville,” DCS’ central office. So your task is to document and present the basis for the higher rate and then often to wait, sometimes more than once, while the application is sent to, considered, and maybe reconsidered “in Nashville.” at DCS’ central office If you are in a hurry to finalize your adoption, you need to decide whether speed or maximum subsidy is your primary goal.
Documentation is everything.
A better answer will require better documentation of your child’s special needs.
DCS is an administrative agency, and administrative agencies respond to paper far better than they do to what foster parents tell workers sitting on a sofa. You haven’t been ignored until you have handed your documentation to them on paper.
Sometimes the child has obtained a diagnosis or has a number of school day disruptions, or whatever, to “bump them up” to a higher level on DCS’s crazy little special needs chart. But maybe that information has never been provided to DCS, or they don’t realize that they have it. Other times, the child needs an evaluation or a records review to establish the decisive criteria.
The central task in qualifying for adoption assistance is to gather and review the facts against the assistance factors. The facts include all the child’s legal, educational, psychological, therapeutic and medical records, and how they function in their everyday life, home, school and community. Documentation is necessary to establish the needs unrecognized by the department.
When the special needs factors in play relate to behavior at school, for example, how many times the foster parent is called to the school or whether the child can function in a certain setting, the foster parent’s calendar and school records are good documentation. If the issue is caregiver time attending to the child’s special needs each day, creating a detailed “day in the life” type document could provide the necessary documentation.
The documentation of your child’s special needs is also required if you hire an attorney. So even if you eventually decide to get help from an attorney, the more you collect yourself, the less you pay an attorney to gather documentation for you. Whether you work with DCS directly or with an attorney’s help, you need your own “case file.” For suggestions regarding foster parent record keeping see “be organized.”
Make your request.
Once you have your documentation gathered and organized, and you can show how you qualify for the rate that you want, with documentation to back it up, make a specific, written request with the supporting documentation attached. Email is fine. Be gracious. Say that some of this was not previously available and so it was not previously considered, and that you look forward to reaching an agreement.
If you don’t hear back in a few days, follow up. If the request is declined, ask what they need to support your request that they don’t have.
Once you reach an agreement and a contract is signed, you are ready to proceed to adoption.
After your adoption has taken place, DCS is to provide post adoption services to families who adopted directly from DCS, and to the adopted children’s birth parents. See T.C.A. 36-1-143
Dawn is Ready to Help with Your DCS Adoption Case
For over 30 years, Dawn has been an adoption and child-welfare advocate nationally and in Tennessee. She knows where the system is working and the many places that it is not. When she provides her frank assessment to policymakers, they listen.
If you are a Tennessee family beginning the adoption process or are otherwise in need of Tennessee legal services related to adoption: please contact Angela Cameron, paralegal, for information on scheduling an appointment or a telephone consultation.